Sep 072017
 

Grimoire of Lost Souls.jpgThe massive hardcover Ultimate-style book for Pact magic clocks in at 387 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page KS-thanks, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 376 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

I was a KS-backer for this book and as such, I have received the massive hardcover. My review is mostly based on the print version, though I have also consulted my pdf-iteration for it.

So, what is this book? The short tl;dr-version would be that it is for Pact Magic, what Ultimate Psionics was for psionics. A more detailed response would also note that this book is not simply a compilation of previously-released material; in fact, this massive grimoire does feature a lot of new material, material previously not seen for PFRPG and some massive tweaks to existing options.

So, what is pact magic? Well, the short reply would be that it was the original Pact Magic. First conceived in 3.5’s Tome of Magic, the system had some serious hiccups and balance-issues in its initial iteration, but at the same time, it was a revelation for me: The idea was that named spirits exist; said spirits have fallen past the usual confines implied by D&D cosmology and, from their in-between status, they hunger for the chance to interact with the realms of mortals. From legends to archetypical beings to strange demons, all kinds of weird spirits, some of which were influenced by the key of Solomon, were thus presented.

This system was greatly expanded in two massive hardcovers back in 3.X, “Secrets of Pact magic” and “Villains of Pact Magic”, both of which are undeservedly obscure and have a place of honor on my bookshelf. They tweaked the balance of the system, expanded it and made it more unique – and, more importantly for me, they rank as some of my favorite rule-books of that age – the spirits came with HUGE short stories depicting their legends, adding a vast amount of flavor to each of the options herein. Then, two stand-alone updates/expansions for PFRPG were released, expanding the concept and translating it to PFRPG, though these did cut back on the beloved legends I enjoyed so much. This book once again features a lot of legends, though some have been externalized to a short-story collection.

Fast-forward to this book, which presents basically the latest and most refined iteration of the concept. At the heart of this system lies the pactmaker class, which gains d8 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons and light armor, ¾ BAB-progression and good Fort- and Will-saves. The class adds +1/2 class level, minimum 1, to Knowledge (arcane), Knowledge (history), Knowledge (religion) and Knowledge (planes) and gains a bonus on these to research a spirit’s knowledge tasks, instead gains a bonus equal to full character level.

So, what are knowledge tasks? Each spirit has a specific, occult seal that is drawn by the binder: This seal and the spirit need to be researched via knowledge tasks – basically, these represent the effort to learn a spirit. This is important, in that there is no limit otherwise on spirits known, if you will: While a pactmaker can only bind spirits of 1st level in the beginning, he may learn all of them. New spirit levels are unlocked at 3rd level and every 2 levels thereafter and spirits are organized by levels, much like spells; the 9th level spirits being obviously the most potent. A pactmaker may bind multiple spirits at higher levels – 2 at 4th level, +1 one spirit every 6 levels thereafter. 7th level and every 6 levels thereafter allow a pact maker to replenish an expended spirit ability 1/day and the capstone makes spirit abilities count as extraordinary and allows for the ignoring of personality influences and also nets the class automatically the capstone empowerment. Bear with me for a second – those are spirit terms. 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter provide a choice of bonuses while bound to a spirit. Saves against abilities, generally, are determined by Charisma as a governing attribute.

And that is already pretty much the basic chassis of the class. Let’s move on to the basics of pact magic, shall we?

The term to denote a character using pact magic is “binder”; a binder level is the equivalent of the caster level, for the purpose of governing the spirit’s abilities. A binding check is a d0 + ½ binder level + Charisma modifier, and it is made upon summoning a spirit to determine the power of the pact. This requires a ceremony and a binder check versus the binding DC of the spirit in question – rushing the ceremony is possible, but results in massive penalties to the check. On a success of the check, the binder gets a good pact. A binder that makes a good pact can freely suppress the physical sign or minor granted abilities of being inhabited by the spirit (like horns, tentacles, weird voices, etc.) and suffers no penalty when acting against the spirit’s influence – basically, the personality of the spirit. If failing the check, he still gets the spirit, but makes a poor pact; the binder must exhibit the physical sign and suffers cumulative penalties when disobeying the spirit’s influence, lasting for 24 hours, even if the spirit if exorcised before that duration has elapsed. Suppressing a spirit eliminates all benefits, but also all penalties that may be incurred by having a spirit inhabit you. The process of making a good pact can be improved by using totems – basically optional material components or terrain components. Additionally, some spirits are more well or ill–disposed towards some races (favored allies and enemies), beings with certain alignments, class features, etc., while others reward those that call them in dark places, while stricken by illness, etc. the possibilities here are endless and tie in very well with the flavor of the spirits in question, rewarding players for caring about the story of their spirits.

Here is the catch: Spirits have three types of abilities: Minor abilities, which are always granted; major abilities, which are expended for 5 rounds after being used unless otherwise noted, and capstone empowerments, which are only gained when the spirit’s DC is beaten by 10 or more, making even low-level spirits retain their usefulness at higher levels.

It is not in the chassis of the pact-maker class or one of the numerous pact magic based class options that the system’s appeal lies; it is within the massive, colossal array of spirits. It should also be noted that most spirits are assigned to a constellation – upon binding them, the binder gains constellation aspects and these general affiliations double as thematic restrictions and schools of spirits if you will; you can focus on binding nature spirits…or fiendish ones…or those that hearken from the dark beyond. Whether you want to focus on slenderman-like entities or strange fey or on any combination of them, the spirits are here and allow for a wide variety of different types of character. And yes, benevolent spirits like cynical detectives that have fallen through the cracks of reality or basically saints can also be found – this is important to note, for pact magic, requiring less study thanb comparable magic and no divine oversight either, does carry with it the flavor of the forbidden, of the occult. And yes, there are starless, more obscure spirits.

As you may have gleaned by now, a strength of spirits lies in the way in which many of their abilities operate on a cool-down mechanic…and frankly, I went through this massive tome with my analysis, and rules-wise, there are precious few hiccups: To note two remarkable ones: The spirit Sevnoir, for example, heals you when inflicting damage to a creature suffering from a fear-effect. If you have a character with a fear-aura on hand, the 1/round caveat doesn’t prevent cheesing this via kitten slaughter.

At the same time, this book does predate the release of Occult Adventure regarding when it was worked on, and as such, unfortunately does not provide synergy with that glorious tome. Prestige classes, magic items, feats, special binder secrets (talents), spells, races, planes and organizations (apocryphal desert…nightmare weald…need I say more?) – the book has a ton to offer in crunch and I could bloat this review to 14, 20 pages even – easily, and still scratch the surface of what the book offers in terms of sheer content. There are some minor formatting inconsistencies to be found, with abilities that should be red showing up in black instead and the like.

There is one more thing you should be aware of: RAW, binders do NOT gain new spirits upon reaching new levels. While *personally*, I require downtime training to gain the benefits of a level up (I really dislike just *pling*, getting level-ups mid-dungeon…), I know that many groups do just that – in such cases, I’d suggest automatically gaining a spirit upon reaching a new level. So yes, this may be, for some groups, a drawback of the RAW engine, though one that can be houseruled away with ease. System-immanently, groups that do not engage in a lot of roleplaying as opposed to rollplaying will have a bit less fun with this, though please do take a look at my conclusion for what I mean by this.

I have to break my usual system of presentation here a bit in order to convey what this book provides, so let me prematurely interject my

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good, but not perfect – I noticed a couple of hiccups here and there, some formatting glitches and the like; less than in many books of this crunch-density, but enough to notice. Layout adheres to a gorgeous 2-column full-color standard and the book comes with a TON of absolutely phenomenal full-color art; some of which was previously used and colored, but most is new. Each spirit has his/her/its own seal as a visual representation, so yeah, you can actually draw the seal, if that’s how you roll! The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks for your convenience and thankfully, the book has a massive, multi-page index that helps navigating this tome. The hardcover is a beauty to behold and well worth getting.

You know, as a person and as a reviewer, I generally tend to gravitate towards complex options; beautiful mathy constructs and subsystems that provide an interesting playing experience. I can honestly appreciate it when math works out, when some abilities do something utterly unique with complex rules operations. While certainly not simple in these regards, pact magic never reaches the complexity of akashic mysteries, ethermagic or similar systems. And still, it is one of my favorite systems ever.

I am not a sentimental man, so nostalgia is not the culprit here and it took me quite a while to deduce why pact magic works so well for me. There is no simple answer. One, though, would be that much like psionics, I can see it completely replacing the standard spellcasting classes for a completely different campaign experience, one steeped in occult lore, research…and one that makes magic more dangerous, feel more forbidden, medieval. In fact, I’m regularly stealing spirits from this book when playing OSR-games, breaking them down to the simpler rules of such systems. LotFP, LL, S&W – it works and fits thematically perfectly will the often more gritty aesthetics there. This has literally transcended the bounds of its system, at least for me – something only precious few books in my vast library achieve.

At the same time, the strength of the system, its appeal, does not lie wholly in its mechanics; pact magic, to a degree, is the original occult magic, prior to Occult Adventures. In my review of Paizo’s phenomenal hardcover, I commented on the fact that I love how player agenda AND character agenda are emphasized, and how the classes have ROLEplaying potential hardcoded into their respective rules. This is, ultimately, why I adore this massive tome; I adore tactical combat and I’m the first to appreciate a well-made combat-encounter with strategically-interesting hazards etc. – I love these. I love the tactical, complex combat aspects of PFRPG. But I also adore the storytelling aspect of the game; I love good roleplaying between characters, between PCs and NPCs; I use story-rewards a lot. To me, the beauty of roleplaying games with a high rules-density lies in the blending of strategy and story-telling, in the fusion of stories and tactics. Ultimately, for me the best rules let me do either unique things in the strategy department, in the roleplaying department, or both.

Every single spirit is a bit like an unruly character that influences the PC or NPC; they all have personalities, quirks and goals, enemies – and they may grow with your PCs. When a spirit helps vanquish a certain foe after being bested by him, you have your work cut out for you as a good roleplayer; you can tweak your character with spirits and keep them perpetually fresh and interesting; perhaps your character is a teetotaler, so binding some spirits may be something he’d be loathe to do; perhaps bidning one spirit and succumbing to the spirit’s influence nets you some complications…or new allies – it’s small, organically happening constellations (haha! – sorry, I’ll punch myself for that later) that make this shine as brightly for me.

There is another aspect to this book. One that perhaps bears no importance for you…but then again, I think it does.

No other system I have used has made me write this much custom material.

When, for example, Aldern Foxglove was a very popular character in my RotRL-game back in the day and then died (trying to be SPOILER-less), I promptly had him come back as a spirit with peculiar personalities, fluid constellations and abilities depending on the dominant personality; when my PCs liberated the ghost lions from the Ghostlord in Red Hand of Doom, I made the pack return as a spirit to be bound; When Kyuss fell, he became the master of the Worm constellation. The Crimson King is a spirit in my game. So is the Dark Tower.

And yes, you can use the spirits herein as guidance, tweak and reskin them for a lot of purposes. Don’t like a legend or a particular spirit? Chances are that you won’t have to do a lot of writing, just replace an ability and come up with a new legend. Done. When one of my players happened upon notes on a blood-drinking lizardfolk thing from ages long past, I took N’aylia the first vampire, tweaked her abilities a bit more towards the lizardfolk-esque and there we go. I actually improvised that reskin on the fly while GMing and nobody noticed.

Or, you know, you can pretty much write infinite amounts of new ones, based on your campaign. I have psionic spirits, akashic spirits, ethermagic-spirits…you name the subsystem and I pretty much have a spirit for it. Why? Because the engine per se is simple. You can easily complicate it in a vast variety of ways by grafting pretty much anything on top of it, with only your own skills as the limit – and the glue that holds all together is this basic system, one that is defined by choice, yes…but more than that, it is defined by the stories you tell with it.

A haunt put to rest? Potential spirit. An outsider slain? Potential spirit? Anything weird, from mages that fell through space and time to sentient constructs? Potential spirits. Fey kicked out of their courts/dethroned fey queens? Potential spirits. Defeated campaign endbosses? Potential spirits in the next one. Paladin PC that sacrificed his soul to seal the demon-lord in an artifact? Potential spirit. Endzeitgeist, a zeitgeist-like spirit of the end-times? Potential spirit. In fact, the book does an amazing job at showcasing the sheer infinite breadth of themes that you can cover with these spirits.

Pact magic is a nice, well-made system on its own – probably one that deserves, when divorced from all flavor, a verdict of 4.5 to 5 stars, somewhere in that vicinity. But this would not do the system the least bit of justice. Dario Nardi and Alexander Agunuas deliver with pact magic perhaps the most literally inspiring system I have ever encountered for a d20-based game. Its genius does not necessarily lie within its rules, but within how it is an incredibly potent narrative instrument, how it can change the depiction of a fantasy world to make magic feel more magical, how it rewards customization and making the system your own more than any comparable system I know. I guarantee that, when using the system thus, you will have perhaps the most impactful alternate system ever on your hands.

In case you haven’t noticed by now: I absolutely LOVE this system. Even my reviewer-bot-persona can’t really adequately complain about it, mainly because separating the fluff from the crunch divests the system of its core principle – it is, frankly, impossible to rate this fairly as anything but the sum of its parts, and that sum is a thing of absolute, inspiring beauty. This book will grace my shelves for years to come; it has already spawned more ideas than I’m ever likely to put to paper. It is, in short, the streamlined, improved heir of the old system; tighter and more concise, yet without losing any component of its uniqueness.

This is one of the most inspiring books, quite literally, that you can purchase for PFRPG. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This is also, big surprise there, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017. It also receives the EZG Essentials tag as a book I consider a must-own expansion for the system.

Now, can we have an Occult Adventures/Horror Adventures-crossover sequel or do I have to write the spirits myself? Who am I kidding – I’m going to write them either way!

Endzeitgeist out.

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Sep 042017
 

monster_movie_MatineeThis bestiary clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 22 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

So, as the introduction (accompanied by a ToC with CRs) specifies, this book constitutes a love-letter to monsters that pay homage to classic horror flicks – not the silver screen of old, but rather to the more recent creatures featured. The advice to let them build up momentum is something I, indeed, with years upon years of horror gaming under my belt, would also advise in favor of. So let’s take a look, shall we?

The first creature herein would be the CR 5 Aquamonstrosity, which is interesting in that it obviously is a fish-man creature, yes – but one with a powerful ability: By burning some hit points, these beasts can execute either an additional attack or an additional move action. Alas, the wording stumbles here – the example specifies that the creature can perform a full-round action and a standard action, when this directly contradicts the previous assertion that the creature can only get an additional move action or an additional attack: There are more full-round actions that full attacks. A rather annoying factor that unfortunately can be seen throughout the pdf, would be the fact that the racial modifiers for the respective monsters are not listed, which renders the question whether the skills are correctly calculated an educated guessing game. Granted, not in this instance, but still. At the same time, it is nice to see that the changed action economy’s impact on rend has been taken into account regarding the wording of the latter – kudos there!

The carnivorous mantrap with its domination-capability should also ring true as a classic, with the monster’s ability to understand languages – in spite of a lack of an Int-score, though I’m not sure I get the omission thereof. Somewhat problematic – the blood drain additional effect does not specify whether it applies to bite and tentacles or only one of these attacks. At CR 3, Grey Invaders get death rays and nitrogen dependency, making their suits important for their efficient functioning. An okay critter, if not a special one.

The CR 7 Jungle Predator obviously would be a  direct quote of the beloved scifi-franchise, including at-will fire blasts and invisibility. Oddly, I think there is something missing regarding the iterative attacks – at +11, +4 of which are due to Strength, they should have iterative attacks. Furthermore, the line seems to assume two-weapon fighting, which is dandy with me; alas, then the -2 penalty is missing. At the plus-side, I love the lethal self-destruct upon death. The Killer Clown, at CR 11, obviously is a call out to IT, with an ability to let it “not sink” (why not simply go the water walk-route? As written, the ability makes e.g. interaction with magma and slimes less than obvious – sink or no sink?) and a cool idea – the first kill a day increases the fear points of the creature, granting it bonuses; at 7 fear points, it becomes dormant. This essentially puts a nice timer on the creature and makes its actions make more sense, while also explaining the actions of the beast. It also heals whenever someone fails a Will save against its spells and abilities. Okay, the final form-giant spider (stats in appendix for your convenience) is a bit lame, but the blood-filled balloons…nice touch! And yes, this is a potential TPK for PCs acting less than smart.

Night terrors are manta-ray-like creatures with a barbed tail -and they can decrease lighting conditions, with more abilities overlapping, bringing darkness and a sneak attack that works even when foes have concealment. Interesting one – and +1 point if you can name the inspiration here! AT CR 9, Nightmare Stalkers would be the representation of Freddy et al., with the ability to shake off ongoing effects, change shape and have hallucinatory terrain. At CR 10, the Shark Tornado is odd – it does share several traits with swarms, but does sport deviations from it – due to the creatures in question being medium, the type is “animal”, subtyped as swarm. Over all, I really liked this take on the shgarknado-concept from a mechanical perspective – why? Granted, mechanically, the troop-subtype may have been the better choice than building a swarm with medium-sized animals. At the same time, the mindless destructive potential of the swarm *DOES* feel like a swarm – so yeah, good with it. The formatting has failed to use the correct font and style for the second half of the statblock’s tornado-ability explanation in a slightly annoying formatting glitch, though.

The Snatchoid, obviously, would be a nod to the cult-franchise Tremors – including improves damage on surprise-round grabs – pity we do not get the evolved versions of the life-cycle, though. The Unstoppable Maniac, with the machete as the weapon of choice, would be a nice rendition of Jason etc. – with some resistances, DR and SR, these guys are tough. They can also rise again at 1d8 HP (which is NOT much) upon being killed and yes, they can dimension door. Additionally, they may not be able to run, but they ignore difficult terrain, making it very possible that they catch up to players…sooner or later. Their damage-potential, though, is pitiful at only 1d6+6.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are okay – while I did notice some minor hiccups, I also noticed quite a few statblocks that sport no grievous issues and in total, this is the most refined monster-book I’ve seen from Fat Goblin Games so far. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes with one downright beautiful original artwork for each creature – absolutely awesome, especially at this low price-point. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Author Eric Hindley provides quite a nice array of monsters here – though beyond the minor hiccups, I think this pdf does have a bit of an issue in theme: See, as any Ravenloft or horror-GM can attest, the creature is EVERYTHING in a well-crafted story in the genre; the same holds true for the monster movie genre. We do not cheer for the obnoxious stereotypes that are slaughtered – we like the monster.

The cultural ramifications for this are not as simple as one would think and lead far into the path of analysis – beyond the coming-of-age-imagery, the symbolism of sexual awakening inherent in the narrative is a complex one. And one, quite a few of the beasts herein can support.

At the same time, though, what we have here are arguably center-stage adversaries – bosses. BBEGs. And for that, there’s no two ways around it, they sorely lack staying power.

With the notable exception of the Killer Clown, the creatures herein do not have pronounced defense capabilities that would stand in the face of PCs of the respective CR. Additionally, the damage-output of some of them undermines the horror they generate – the Jason and Freddy-iterations especially simply don’t do that much damage, with the former lacking the regenerative feed-on-fear capabilities. While this may be me wanting “story”-monsters worthy of their inspirations, my playtest confirmed my suspicions – the creatures are not pitted versus hapless teenagers, but seasoned adventurers and these guys, alas, can make short process of most of the adversaries herein.

Thus, the issue of this pdf lies in a somewhat schizoid focus – on one hand, the creatures should be stars, creature-features if you will; on the other hand, they lack the staying power and capability to deliver on said promise.

The issue in horror roleplaying, especially with d20-rules, is that hit point loss alone is not creepy – it happens all the time. You need the threat of death, of crippling afflictions, of lethal attacks to transport fear to not only the characters, but also to the players. And here, this does not deliver. When some of the creatures in this book attacked, my players lost all respect for them. While in no way a bad supplement, this discrepancy does mar it for me.

Do not treat the monsters herein as though they can carry the final boss fight – instead, I’d suggest a modified appropriation of the concepts and statblocks and enhancing them, should you expect to truly frighten your PCs.

What remains, is a nice little bestiary with gorgeous artworks and a mixed bag of adversaries – not bad, but also short of its potential. My final verdict will hence clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 for the purpose of this platform.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Sep 042017
 

I_loot_the_bodyThis installment of the “I loot the…”-series clocks in at 12 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page ToC/editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 6 pages of content, so what do we get?

Well, we begin with a massive table of 100 entries that covers armor and outfits that add an AMAZING depth of detail to the respective entries: From bulky bronze armor weighing a whopping 150 pounds to holy symbols emblazoned on the respective armor to seashells added, from armor fashioned to look like hezrous, the diversity or theme is here, but it is supplemented by entries that take the whole table one step beyond, from “cool” to excellence: There actually are quite a few entries here that are mechanically-relevant! Gliding cloaks? Check. Armor that has tubes that can be filled with liquid ice, cooling the wearer in absurdly-hot environments, even with proper bonus types? Check! Leather that exudes a sticky slime when submerged in water at least once per day, giving the wearer an edge when trying to escape from grapples? Check. Clothing more akin to an insect chrysalis, armor made from basically a chain? Oh yes, beyond the thematic diversity and impressive breadth, this table has it all.

This extends to the second 100-entry-strong table, which features scabbards in need of repair (with DCs), gel staunching bleeding wounds, helms that have a mouthpiece as a free action that lets them spout alchemical fire, bandoliers with only a few daggers remaining, helms that can “bite”, tripwires, boots that grant minor electricity resistance….oh yes. This is me smiling from ear to ear right now! From gas-masks to nets and bolts that are too large for standard crossbows, the table delivers big time.

The third table would deal with pouch contents: Twigs used for lottery (one short than the others), debt ledgers, wanted posters showing the PC’s mug, sheets of paper making fun of wizards…or what about the book that reads “instant fortress”…and is a pop-up book? I totally laughed out loud here! This wonderfully dry sense of humor suffuses some of the entries…and there are incredibly spicy peppers to be found among letters, wigs and entries like “This orange good is repellent to insects as well as travelling companions.” That’s one sentence that exemplifies perfectly what I mean with humor and excellent writing.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are excellent, I noticed no hiccups. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ elegant two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes with nice b/w-artworks. The pdf is fully bookmarked for your convenience and in two versions: One optimized for the printer and one for screen-use. Kudos for that!!

I can count the number of pdfs that I did not consider excellent penned by Mike Welham on one hand. His prose is excellent, his imagination amazing. I really wished I had had more time to talk to him at Gencon, but boy oh boy, this pdf pretty much shows how I came to hold him in such high regards: Not content with simply providing a diverse array of options full of flavor and different tones, he goes one step beyond, providing a ton of minor rules-operations within the little space available…operations which frankly made me crave a book of mundane/alchemical item tweaks. It’s that good. The dressing is glorious, but adding these tidbits to it ultimately makes this stand-out further and marks it as excellence and my favorite installment in the series so far. 5 stars + seal of approval, given without the slightest hesitation.

Endzeitgeist out.

I Loot the Body is available from DriveThruRPG.

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Sep 022017
 

193326This massive expansion book for the Pure Steam steampunk toolkit/setting clocks in at 165 pages,1 page front cover, 1 page editorial,1 page ToC, 4 pages of SRD, 1 page KS-thanks, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 156 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

Beyond the confines of the Federated States, there exist two general “peoples”, nations if you will – or rather, cultural entities – the first of these would be the Mesocine, who are distinguished between Manrik lizardfolk and Zaurto kobolds. The former get +2 Str and Con, -2 Int, a primary bite attack that deals 1d4 piercing damage (kudos for codifying this properly beyond the basics!), hold breath, a swim speed of 15 ft., two primary claw attacks at 1d4 slashing and 1/day, when taking damage, they can fly into a frenzy, doubling their racial attribute bonuses, but also suffer -2 to AC while frenzying. Whenever one of their readied actions is triggered, they can move up to half their speed as a free action, which is a rather potent ability. As a bit of a drawback, they take a -4 penalty to saves vs. cold spells and effects and upon failing a save, they are staggered, making for a viable Achilles heel. However, they can survive 4 times as long as a human before beginning to starve. Additionally, poisons have their onset time doubled and duration halved, with poisons sans onset times gaining an onset time of 1 round.

There are 4 alternate racial traits, one of which replaces the readying and frenzy with a lame +2 to Ride and Handle Animal (bonus type’s correct, though!), a climb speed of 20 ft. in exchange for the swimming and holding breath. Instead of frenzy and being cold-blooded, some can have ferocity. Finally, there is the option to share pain instead of frenzy, allowing for the limited sharing of damage as non-lethal damage with willing nearby allies. This is problematic, considering that more damage can be shared when more of these guys are around – the damage shared is converted to nonlethal, which can potentially be exploited with some combos – it’s not an easy scenario to set up, though.

The zaurto kobolds get +2 Dex and Int, -4 Str, are Small, have a movement rate of 30 ft., low-light vision, +2 to Craft (traps), Knowledge (dungeoneering) and Perception and both Craft (traps) and Stealth are always class skills. They get resistance 5 to an energy type corresponding to their draconic ancestry. Zaurto with a Charisma of 11 or higher can cast charm animal 1/day as a SP, but may only affect reptilian creatures. They can trade low-light vision for darkvision 60 ft. and light sensitivity. the skill-bonuses for a detachable tail that can be used to force a crit confirmation roll to be rerolled (and which takes a few days to regrow, depending on Constitution) or for gliding wings.

The second group/cultural entity wold be the rageaic, which is the catch-all for goblinoids. Bugbears gain +4 Str, -2 Dex and Int, making them very lopsided in that department. They are slow and steady, have darkvision 60 ft., +1 to saves versus poison, spells and SPs, +1 natural armor (and are immune to exposure from cold climates – which is pretty strong in some campaigns) and they gain a +4 bonus to Constitution checks and Fortitude saves to avoid fatigue and exhaustion. They also get +4 to Intimidate and +1 to attack rolls versus orcs and dwarves. 1/day, when reduced below 0 hit points but not killed, they can continue fighting for 1 round – in order to avoid exploits there, the ability has a 1/day caveat. Alternate racial traits focus on +2 to Ride/Climb and CMD vs. bull rush and trip, +2 to break objects and sunder or a bite attack.

The rageaic goblin is similarly lopsided, with +4 Dex, -2 Str and Cha. They are Small, have a 30 ft. movement rate, +1 to saves versus poison, spells and SPs, +2 to saves versus fear effects and they ignore the size penalty to Intimidate. They can eat a lot and get +4 to Survival rolls to scavenge food and to saves to resist the nauseated and sickened conditions. Gaining two favored classes is also part of the deal. Among the alternate racial traits, we gain a +3 to Craft (alchemy) and Knowledge (engineering) option; +1 to disarm and trip (and whip proficiency); +2 to Survival and saves versus diseases or, finally +2 to Acrobatics and always falling on your feet, rather than prone.

The rageaic hobgoblin gets +2 Con and Cha, darkvision 60 ft., +2 to saves versus poison, spells and SPs, +2 to Diplomacy and Bluff (and they don’t worsen attitudes when failing Diplomacy), +2 to combat maneuver rolls with light or heavy blades and they are all proficient with longswords, rapiers, short swords and treat bastard swords as martial weapons. As alternate traits, they can choose +4 Intimidate; +2 to Appraise, Craft and Profession regarding metals (and the knowledge to make wootz steel), +1 to DCs for spells and SPs of enchantment effects (and 1/day charm person as an SP 1/day, if their Cha is 15 or higher). Finally, the last trait nets a martial weapon proficiency and imposes a -2 penalty to resist Cha-based skills for 24 hours after the hobgoblin has successfully used Diplomacy.

None of these races comes with their own age, height and weight table or FCOs, btw. – you’ll have to refer to the standards here and the new classes herein or in Pure Steam get no support in that regard either. Now, I mentioned Wootz steel – it’s a new material that, weirdly, is located here instead of the equipment section. A weapon forged from this material ignored half of an item’s hardness, provided the hardness of the object is lower than that of the wootz steel. These weapons are also more resilient to being sundered, just fyi. While somewhat costly, the material is pretty OP – all magical enhancements to it have their costs reduced by 25% the first time it’s enchanted. still, considering te moderate price, this makes the material universally better (and cheaper) for all but the most inexpensive of magical items…OP.

The first new class featured in the book would be the marshal, who must be lawful, gets 4 + Int skills per levels, good Fort- and Will-saves, full BAB-progression and proficiency with simple weapons and firearms as well as longsword, rapier, sap, short sword and whip as well as light and medium armor and shields, excluding tower shields. They begin play with a badge that can be replaced as a masterwork tool and nets +2 to Diplomacy and Intimidate as well as a firearm. They can purchase mundane firearms and ammo at 10% (!!) of the regular cost and the official channels may reduce the cost of enhancement by 25%, but extend the time the process takes. This ability makes the excessively expensive firearms more affordable at lower levels. 2nd level nets the ability to use Perception to follow tracks and adds +1/2 class level to follow tracks. At 2nd level, the marshal may also pronounce, as a move action, a legal warrant upon a humanoid creature he can see. If the marshal has sufficient evidence, the marshal gains a +2 bonus to a wide variety of skills, the DC of his round-up ability used against the target and this extends to atk and damage. These bonuses btw. scale at 6th, 11th and 16th level and, starting at 10th level, the marshal may pronounce a warrant on a whole group or organization.

At 3rd level, the marshal chooses a nation, in which he is acknowledged as legal authority and thus gains further social skill bonuses as well as a variety of special actions that represent his status as a representative of the law: he may imprison targets, enter places and requisition ever increasing resources: First gear and later even personnel or land. I really liked the class codifying stringently these privileges. Now, I already mentioned round up: Starting at 4th level, the marshal can elect to deal nonlethal damage without the regular penalties, adding bonus damage when choosing to do so, as well as reducing the target’s speed by half on a failed save. At 8th level and every 4 levels thereafter, the bonus damage increases and the marshal gets a condition to temporarily apply to the target in lieu of the reduced movement rate. 6th level allows for the limited sharing of the warrant’s bonus with allies and 10th level provides the ability to take 10 in movement-rated skills while pursuing a target. 14th level nets quarry. At 20th level, a warrant’s attacks versus the marshal inflict minimum damage and the marshal gets basically advantage when rolling against the target and auto-confirms crits.

The class also features player agenda, in case you were wondering: The marshal begins play with a marshal acumen, gaining another one every 2 levels thereafter. This include Amateur Gunslinger, with iterative taking of the acumen providing more benefits. Diehard (and not being staggered while in combat with a warrant), combat feats and gun training can be found here. Similarly, there is a means to track faster, an option to use marshal class features against monstrous humanoids, reducing concealment benefits, etc. The array also includes TWFing and combat maneuver enhancers. For the most part, like in the racial section, the book is very precise in its rules-language, though a few minor hiccups like “1-round-action” instead of “full-round action” can be found. Similarly, there are some instances that don’t sit too well with me – e.g. the application of two ability score modifiers to a skill is yet another means to needlessly escalate skills. The class does btw. mention the code of conduct and addresses traveling with problematic companions, but, much like the second class herein, it does not come with favored class options.

The second class within this book would be the tech savant, who gets d6 HD, 4 + Int skills per level, good Will-save progression, 1/2 BAB-progression and proficiency in light armors, firearms, simple weapons, double crossbow, hand crossbow, heavy and light repeating crossbow as well as any weapon they personally craft. They employ science via contraptions, using the gearhead/constructor list and using Charisma as governing attribute. The class may use Charisma instead of Intelligence to govern the techy/crafty skills and may use them untrained, with higher levels yielding take 20s once per week and then, day (6th and 11th level, respectively), and is treated as engineering for the purpose of archetype etc. interaction.

The contraptions, in case the class chassis didn’t make that clear, scale up all the way to 9th level. Contraptions, fyi, need to be prepared in advance and they may learn new schematics, unlike many Cha-based “casters” – I *think* the absence of a spellbook equivalent is supposed to signify that the class can only retain a certain amount of known schematics in memory, but RAW, there is no caveat that explicitly states that he cannot learn more. Beyond the already impressive contraption array, the class gets a Cha-governed pool. One of these can be used to enhance a contraption DC by +1; more points can be used in conjunction with a given spell, but only when used with knacks. At 1st level and every 2 levels thereafter, the tech savant gets a so-called savant knack – basically the equivalent of the class to the arcanist’s exploits, after which it was obviously fashioned. These knacks interact with the contraption engine, allowing for points to be expended e.g. upon preparation to treat effect schematics as known schematics. Adding calibrations without affecting activation time, decreasing the final adjusted level, gaining an inspiration pool and some investigator tricks as well as some obviously based on exploits can be found.

2nd level nets jury-rigging via Field Repair and the option to salvage items. 4th and 18th level yield quicker crafting and reduced maintenance periods and the capstone provides the means to use the pool to pay for activation costs of contraptions. I am honestly not sold on this class. The tech savant is, much like the arcanist among the casters, more potent than previous pure steam options (even when limiting contraptions known) and the wonky bits in its engine make this the first class in the series to not really work for me.

The book also contains a metric ton of class options – and I cannot cover them all in the full level of detail without bloating this review beyond belief and utility, so, in a quicker overview: Alchemists gain new discoveries, including catalyst discoveries – these basically can be considered to be metamagic-like effects for bombs, snake oils, extracts, etc., adding e.g. sickened/shaken-suppressing to conjuration (healing). Only one such discovery may be added per base, thankfully. It should be noted, though, that a discovery can yield the bombs lost by the huckster archetype, who is a snake oil specialist alchemist, capable of bluffing and gathering crowds (snake oils replace bombs). On the barbarian side, an option to gain uncanny dodge while in rage (if you lose it) – like the Brave archetype, who gats war paint, a war cry and trophies collected. Decent, if unremarkable, from a mechanical point of view. Maverick bards get diminished spellcasting and a kind of alternate bardic performance called gunplay with 6th level providing a flurry-like additional attack when gunplaying (the haste referenced is not italicized properly, as a minor hiccup). Other than that, we have basically gunslinger abilities, using bardic performance instead as a resource…which is a bit problematic, considering how much more rounds of bardic performance the class has – this makes, basically, a nova-y variant bard/gunslinger hybrid.

Cavaliers get a cool new order, the lone star, and archetype-wise, a cavalier who gets a cool bike that can be modified in a variety of interesting ways – rather cool one! Chaplains get three new organizations, the first of which would be the mendicants. The mendicants have 4 vows that define them and allow for further specialization: The vow of the pure fortifies the chaplain’s body; the vow of the ally can cause targets to surrender and is pretty much the good guy/shepherd-like type; the vow of the unfettered represents basically anti-tech luddites and finally, the geirbound may only use magic from his own class, not any other sources, focusing on countering such magics. The network nets some rogue tricks and skill tricks. The Ulleran Trade Council chaplains are well-funded, gaining a stipend and connections.

Gearheads can gain innovations to add contraptions to weapons or make them work akin to traps and 4 new specialties: Chronikers get perfect timekeeping skills and may gain clockwork appendages or a clockwork familiar. Cryogenicists and Pyrotechnicians are pretty self-explanatory. The arsenalist significantly increases the damage of the 0-level effect-schematics and focuses on weaponized contraptions. The gunslinger may elect to become a desperado, who gets some Perform-bonuses, charmed life and a couple of unique deeds and uses Cha as governing attribute for grit. More interesting would be the gaucho, a knife-specialist gunslinger that should be welcome not only in terms of flavor, but also for campaigns/cultures that do not favor guns. It also gets a bit ranger tricks.

In spite of diminished spellcasting, the arcane gun magus archetype is extremely powerful, getting full gun/spellcombat/spellstrike tricks, exacerbating the glass cannon tricks of the magus with firearms. On the plus-side, ranged spellstrike carries a chance of spell backfire, which serves as at least a bit of balancing, though deed access at -3 levels and the whole package render this one too strong. The monk gun devotee is, bingo, yet another monk/gunslinger-combo with gun katas – i.e. flurry with guns. It is impressive to note that the archetype gets the interaction of reloading with flurries and the melee/ranged use of guns in flurries right. Quicker reloads via ki, using Wis instead of Dex, temporary darkvision via muzzle flashes…all in all, I generally considered this to be one of the better takes on the often-represented trope. The flurry is pretty potent, but considering the issues of the monk class, I get why the power-increase is here. Rangers may choose from 3 solid new combat styles and the wrangler archetype, bingo, representing a cowboy-ish ranger, makes for a fun option.

Cool: Rogues may elect to become hobos, who understand the hobo code and employ improvised tricks. The new witch hexes include options to increase misfires, grit/panache costs and the like. Doubling threat ranges for increased misfire rates is interesting and thankfully prevents stacking abuse. Similarly, hexes that influence contraptions make sense in the context of the rules provided herein and the base Pure Steam tome.

The book also includes basic, brief (and not too interesting, alas) rules for formal gun dueling or showdowns. The book also sports a ton of different feats – including calibration feats, which are interesting: Instead of just being somewhat akin to metamagic, they offer two strategic options: If applied during contraption preparation, all activations benefit from it; both uses require a higher level activation charge, but if spontaneously, the numerical effects are not adjusted to represent the increased level. Spontaneous addition also renders the contraption broken and takes longer, so while it offers flexibility, this is not something you’ll be doing a lot. The feats have some cool tricks: Aiming by mirrors, a nice feat-tree for lasso-combat, some contraption scavenging…and particularly dragging foes with lassos while mounted and the like are interesting. The feat section is interesting and fun and comes with optional variant rules for tackling targets.

The equipment section mentions variant currencies, bladed revolvers, harmonica pistols, rotary guns, bola bullets, hollow-point ammo, extinguishing grenades, dynamite sticks, liquid nitroglycerine – the classics of the Western genre. Weird: nitroglycerine deals force damage, which affects incorporeal creatures. Usually, explosions are bludgeoning and/or fire damage. Copper cable, alchemical fuel additives, chakram hats (Mr. Bond’s calling…) and services, from document retrieval to funeral services are all covered here. The magical equipment also has some stars – dusty equipment that can generate choking clouds, motocross equipment, de/consecrated bullets, double-action pepperboxes…what about boomsticks, magic shotguns that can be loaded with thunderstones to generate sonic bursts.

The artworks here deserve special note: The b/w-artworks for the special guns are absolutely amazing: The dead iron, made seemingly from a backbone, almost organic-looking, the hydra pistol with its dragon-themed design-elements – these are beautiful. As a minor formatting quibble, the text of the items does not italicize the special weapon properties in the text consistently. Cutting edge technology, from dowsing rods to metal detectors, are cool. However, not all are perfect: Healing crystals, for example, increase healing by 1d4 +1, whether natural or magical. All healing. Fast healing 1. Orisons. Not cool. Worse, the crystal does not specify how often it can convey these benefits, so I figure all the time. It also does not note whether it occupies a slot (which it definitely should). We also get some cool vehicles – coal cycles, rail layers, olmechs, gyro skiffs and ornithopters…and yep, handcars. The book also contains rules/clarifications for motorcycle combat and how it differs from Mounted Combat.

The next chapter depicts the Mazan pantheon and the Brelon archangels – with the write-ups being solid, but the deities lack subdomains, obediences and the like – by now standards for the game. There also is a decent, if unremarkable dream domain. Beyond all of these, the book also is a massive sourcebook of the West of Ullera, with settlement statistics and qualities summed up for your convenience before the massive sourcebook-y section begins – including a handy glossary. These sections also contain a ton of sample NPC personalities, often using rules presented earlier in the rules section. With the taan ocdrul draconic haunts, the disputed lands and their extreme weather patterns (hail fire storms, for example!), there is a serious wildwest of steam-vibe going on here and it is here, mostly, where the previous elements start coming together to form an atmosphere that diverges from the standard. Flashpoints, winged mavericks, the kingdom of Rausch, indebted to the highest ideals (funny for me, since in German, it is the word for being in an intoxicated state), halflings in steam-driven wheelchairs – there is a metric ton of great ideas.

Beyond these, the book also sport new factions, from the elite secret-ops airship Jormungandr to the desert wolf raiders, the Triple R motorcycle gang, these are also pretty interesting. The final section of the book is devoted to the bestiary, which covers creatures like the jackalope and giant armadillo or the sandtroll, ranging in CR from 1 to 6. The section has lists by terrain, CR and alphabetically and, with dire armadillos that can do the cannonball, the dread clockwork plague (which progresses in 3 stages), the evil cactus spirits khoyans, bull and loch satyrs – some solid critters here.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting shows some serious care: On a formal level, I noticed surprisingly few glitches. Similarly, on a rules-language level, the book is surprisingly precise and crisp, with only very few issues regarding the clarity of the material, even in the more complex rules-interactions. Layout adheres to a nice two-column full-color standard and the books sports a lot of gorgeous, unique b/w art of a consistent style, delivered by Mates Laurentiu, Alejandro lee and Rebekah Crowmer. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience with nested bookmarks, but sports no index, which is a bit of a comfort-detriment for a book of this size. I cannot comment on the virtues or lack thereof of the physical version of this book, since I do not own it.

Adam Crockett, Brennan Ashby, David Perry and L. James Wight have delivered a massive steampunk-wildwest-toolkit here. While there are a couple of pieces of crunch that I consider problematic, balance-wise, these remain in the minority – for the most part, this represents an impressive achievement and a must have addition to the game for fans of Pure Steam. I do bemoan that this book was obviously completed before Occult Adventures hit sites – the occult rules and Wild West feel very much like they belong together and I often felt myself wishing that some of the concepts could have benefitted from synergy there. Similarly, the lack of subdomains or obediences for the deities and FCOs felt a bit jarring to me. The new races also oscillate a bit in their power-levels, ranging from very strong to core race standards.

This book has me a bit torn: When it embraces its Wild West tropes, it really excels most of the time, but some of the options also felt, at least to me, less inspired than their concepts: The desperado, for example, has been done much better based on the vigilante-chassis, for example. It should be noted, however, that all of these are, ultimately, small imperfections. The book, in many of its rules, is more conservative than many of the options I’ve seen in my reviewing. When the rules are innovative, they hit a pitch-perfect tone, but the book does not maintain this level of brilliance throughout; personally, I wasn’t absolutely blown away by the respective materials -they all are nice, but don’t have these brilliant stand-out options. Don’t get me wrong – the crunch never becomes bad. This is a really nice book and brims with creativity…but, much like a ride through the magnificent West, it also has its lulls, where the landscape is less interesting.

Don’t let that keep you away from this book, though: If the idea of a Wild West suffused with steampunk aesthetics even remotely intrigues you, then this should be considered to be a must-own tome. If you enjoyed Pure Steam, then chances are that you will adore this book as well – this may not represent perfection, but it is a professionally-made, high-quality tome. It alleviates the dearth of choice for chaplains and gearheads and the new notes on nations and places are evocative and fun indeed. The book is roughly 1/2 crunch and 1/2 setting information and both are intriguing and should be considered to be inspiring.

Still, as a whole, the book left me smiling, but also feeling like its Wild West themes could have used a bit more emphasis. To me, this book’s flaws lie less in what is inside the book and more in what isn’t, when the new races don’t bring anything remarkable to the table and with a couple of filler archetypes, I really wished the space had been used for something more far-out. Perhaps that’s just me being the mythology-nerd, but I kinda hoped for a blend of themes and tropes from Native American myths and a bit more frontier-Western, if you will. Or perhaps kingdom-building rules for steampunky frontier development…something like that. There are so many cool things that could be done with the amazing base-line. Again: This is a very good book, but also one that left me slightly dissatisfied: The Wild West theme can definitely yield enough for a Westbound II. Again, this is me being nitpicky – this is well worth getting if the themes interest you even slightly.

My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4.

Endzeitgeist out.

Westbound is available from DriveThruRPG.

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Aug 312017
 

Ability_Variations

This supplemental rules-pdf for Castle Falkenstein clocks in at 11 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ ½ page of SRD, leaving us with 8.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, after a brief framing narration by Tom Olam (which resurfaces in the respective

sub-chapters), we begin with the first of several tweaks to the base engine of Castle Falkenstein – in this instance, we’re introduced to the Specialization variant: Instead of general Ability capabilities, the system allows you to take a Good or Great ability and trade it in for Specializations, a number equal to ½ the value of the traded ability, with Good being worth 3, Great being worth 4 specializations. Specializations can be applied to any Ability in which the character is Poor or Average – the specialization increases the Ability by one step for the purpose of performing Feats that relate to the Specialization in question. Thankfully, a massive table (greater than 1 page!) provides sample specializations and also provides synergy with the great Tarot Variation suits – so no, you’re not left guessing regarding how narrow you should design Specializations. It should also be noted that compatibility with Comme Il Faut is maintained.

The second

variation featured within the pdf would be the divorce variation, which once again features compatibility with the Tarot Variation. Each Ability is governed by a playing card suit, but with this variation, the Abilities allow for players making an argument of why a given suit may apply its bonus to a given task – in two variations: Half and full value. There is some value in this – you will probably be able to perform at an increased efficiency. However, while the Host remains the final arbitrator of what you can do, I really don’t like this one – it smells of FATE and competitive BSing to me, but, obviously, your mileage may vary and thankfully, we are the final instance that decides which of the rules herein to use and which not to – this will find its fans and it makes the game easier and while, as a person, I don’t care for it, as a reviewer, I can appreciate its appeal.

The final variation would be the improvement variation: In this variation, dramatic characters improve by spending Improvement Points. Hosts are guided in detail: You determine Deeds during the adventure, a kind of important waypoint and determine an Improvement Point value for such Deeds. Beyond the confines of adventures, dramatic characters may try to earn Improve

ment Points via Resolutions, which can be completed, but take time to complete, with each character getting one of these – the Resolutions can be similarly broken down into Deeds, with samples provided. The resolution allows, in a way, for downtime activity: Players really invested in their Dramatic Characters can thus be rewarded for e.g. writing copious amounts of prose – or you can simply control character power thus or provide an illusion of cohesion beyond the confines of the gaming sessions.

Once earned, Improvement Points can be spent to improve Abilities (cost being equal to the Ability’s new value). When also using Specializations, they can be used to purchase Specializations, which cost 6 points. An alternate for faster growth of dramatic characters can also be found, with decreased costs – and since the metrics are pretty simple, tweaking the variation remains very simple. If you’re concerned about justifying Improvement in-game, the pdf does provide guidance in that arena.

Conclusion:

Editing and for

matting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to fat Goblin Games’ elegant, really neat 2-column full-color artwork. The pdf features fitting stock-art and sports no bookmarks – due to its brevity, it does get a pass there.

Mister J Gray LOVES Castle Falkenstein – as much becomes evident in every single of his supplements. The means by which this establishes a continuity with the venerable original Castle Falkenstein books is amazing, and so is the quality. The variant rules presented herein for a measly buck allow you to t

weak the playing experience very well and net an interesting array of customization options for the game. I hope the Talsorian-crew reads these reviews and lets the Fat Goblin Games-crew update the Castle Falkenstein-core books in a new edition – if anything, all these variations really make me crave a big, new and shiny book. This is a fun offering, it is VERY inexpensive and thus gains a final verdict of 5 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.

Castle Falkenstein: The Ability Variations is available from DriveThruRPG.

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Feb 172014
 

The_cover_for_Heroes_of_the_Storm_-_Sword_of_the_Great_KingBy Paco Garcia Jaen

Heroes of the Storm came to my attention at Spiel in 2013 when I visited the stand of Mindwarrior Games. Their passion and enthusiasm for their games really caught my eye and seeing they carry both board and role playing games was an added bonus.

They were kind enough to provide a review copy of the game and, at last, I’ve managed to get to it and read it.

When I interviewed the designer, Mike Pohjola, at the same convention, he told me it was a game specially designed for younger and inexperienced players. Another box ticked for me. I think there aren’t enough games for new players and even less for young ones, so I was immediately keen on it.

So how does it fare?

The game comes in a gorgeous box. The cover artwork is exciting, portraying a warrior facing an overwhelming and threatening monster. It certainly screams ADVENTURE at you and, although the box feels a bit light, it’s also big enough to keep all your gaming accessories. The cardboard is not massively thick, though, so treating it with a bit of care wouldn’t go amiss.

Production wise, though, things do take a bit of a downturn from here.

The box contains two booklets, a map, a pack of character sheets and a set of dice. The dice are pretty standard and cheap, which is what I’d expect from a beginner’s set. The map is rather nice, though. The double paged map pictures a nice portion of Nathar, the world where the action takes place.

The character sheets, ten of them, are OK, but nothing amazing. The graphic design is simple and it doesn’t have any thematic  decorations or anything. However it has a very interesting thing. The game uses two ways to measure damage, hit points and balance points. The sides of the sheets feature a scale with the hit and balance points so a paper clip can be attached to each side and help track the points won and lost.

Then there are two full-colour books, one for the players and another for the game master. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, they are just staple bound. At 60 pages per book, they deserve perfect binding at least. The covers are made of the same material as the rest of the pages, so there’s no protection at all.

The artwork is gorgeous. The illustrations are truly lovely and the paintings are excellent. A very good amount of them too!

However the layout is absolutely terrible. A single column layout that hasn’t really been looked after. At all. I hate to say it, but it’s one of the most uninspiring layouts I’ve ever seen in an RPG. To put it bluntly, it looks like they used Word to layout the books. And the editing has also been overlooked. Quite a few spelling and typographical mistakes are scattered throughout the books.

The game mechanics are fairly simple; it’s just a d20 based system, very simplified to make it easy to grasp and, credit to the designer, it gets explained step by step not just by rules, but with examples that become increasingly more complex. This has been done quite carefully and I reckon pretty much any child over 8 would be able to get how this game works.

Character creation is a simple enough affair and it’s described in great detail and one step at a time so it can be taken as a group activity too. Although not a 10 minute job, it’s something that can easily be accomplished in just an hour or slightly over, so younger players won’t get bored with the process.

There are seven character classes: Knight, Wizard, Ranger, Swineherd, Stahlo (orcish looking creatures), Whiskerling (think a bipedal fox) and Arni (a deva sort of humanoid). The fact that it doesn’t have Elves, Dwarves and other, more traditional, fantasy races is kind of great. As much as I have nothing against traditional fantasy, I like that the author has gone a step further to give something different and original.

The books come with everything you need and the only thing that’s lacking a bit is the amount of spells. 12 grade one and 11 grade two spells is all they provide. They are all useful, though, so levelling up can turn character into powerful spell-casters.

The world is generic but well built. An evil emperor, Zangavius, has taken over the land and a crew of evil knights is oppressing the citizens. There’s a group of rebels, the Greenhoods, who hide in Smokywood. Needless to say, ideally the players will join the rebels, since the whole thing has been organised to be run that way.

The Game Master’s Guide gives some advice on running the games, creating atmosphere, dealing with the unexpected and general gaming guidelines. All very welcome and generic information that won’t be of any use to experienced gamers, but well thought out for new players. Enough details to give a good idea, but not so much that becomes overwhelming.

Then there’s an adventure that runs in 6 chapters. Although they’ve been designed to last one session each chapter, they can easily be longer as the adventure progresses. Although there’s nothing overtly original about the adventure, the design is very good. Each chapter introduces the players to new elements of the game, including more complex manoeuvres, increasingly difficult encounters, how to create your own monsters and how to use locations.

The way it’s been divided between the two books, with the illustrations in the Player’s Guide and the adventure itself in the Game Master’s Guide. This could present a problem if the GM needs to see the illustrations and maps, but everything has been carefully thought out and referenced so it’s easy to find for both players and GM alike.

Conclusion

Although the game is well targeted and it has some terrific ideas, the production does get in the way of the whole experience, I am sorry to say.

The whole thing is in desperate need of an art director. The artwork is lovely, but that’s where it ends. The format is too big for children – the books are bigger than a standard A4 size – and the layout is very uninspiring. For a game that’s meant for the younger players, they aren’t that robust either, so I can see them getting torn.

The game itself is fine. Fine indeed, I’d say. It’s easy to get to grips with. The division between the Player and the Game Master’s Guide is well thought out, the classes are very nice and with plenty of opportunity to expand… everything is there!

I don’t know what the prize of this game is, but anything around £20 (around $30) would be a good investment if you have younger kids who are into fantasy.

Mixed feelings for a mixed game torn between good game design and mediocre production values.

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